As the ’80s came to a close, so too did the first wave of the slasher cycle. While they would continue to be produced into the next decade, 1989 was the last gasp of a dying genre. Returning franchises (Friday the 13th Part VIII, Halloween 5, A Nightmare on Elm Street 5, Sleepaway Camp III) and hopeful upstarts (Shocker, Intruder, Phantom of the Mall: Eric’s Revenge) alike struggled to make an impact. We all know you can never really kill a slasher, but it would take Scream‘s reinvention of the concept in 1996 to renew broad interest.
Cutting Class, another ’89 entry in the subgenre, marked the directorial debut — and, as it turned out, sole directorial effort — from Rospo Pallenberg, who notably co-wrote Excalibur, contributed uncredited rewrites on Exorcist II: The Heretic, and served as a “creative associate” on Deliverance. Despite his pedigree, Pallenberg did not write the script; that was the work of Steve Slavkin, who would go on to create Nickelodeon’s pivotal series Salute Your Shorts.
The plot finds prototypical girl-next-door Paula (Jill Schoelen, The Stepfather) in the middle of a melodramatic love triangle between her stereotypical jock boyfriend, Dwight (a then-unknown Brad Pitt), and Brian (Donovan Leitch, The Blob), newly released from a mental institution after suffering from a psychotic break as a child that left his father dead. Brian is the subject of ridicule by his classmates, the pompous Dwight chief among them, but Paula sympathizes with him.
When a dead body is discovered at their high school, Brian is the obvious suspect among his peers. The kills are rather tame, but the final act utilizes the school setting for some inventive slashing: a trampoline murder set piece from which Eli Roth drew inspiration (and improved upon) for Thanksgiving, a suspense sequence built on a math word problem, a copy machine kill, and a shop class finale with a multitude of possibilities for carnage.
The central “whodunit” is impeded by the lack of feasible possibilities, but an undercurrent of humor runs through the proceedings. Indebted to (but nowhere near as clever as) Heathers, the tone waffles between teen comedy and satire, although it’s difficult to gauge Pallenberg and Slavkin self-awareness. They also attempt a vague psychological approach to the material; a refreshing change of pace from the typical slice-and-dice, yet it barely scratches the surface before falling back on familiar tropes.
Despite an admitted disinterest in the project, Schoelen reliably delivers the charm and resourcefulness she brought to other genre roles around this time (The Stepfather, Popcorn, The Phantom of the Opera, When a Stranger Calls Back, Curse II: The Bite). Leach is convincingly off-putting, particularly opposite Pitt’s fresh-faced charisma. Roddy McDowall (Fright Night) sleazes it up as the school’s sordid principal, Martin Mull (Clue) plays Paula’s father, and Dirk Blocker (Brooklyn Nine-Nine) pops up as the gym teacher.
Cutting Class makes its 4K Ultra HD debut via MVD’s 4K LaserVision Collection. It utilizes Vinegar Syndrome’s 4K restoration from 2018 with LPCM 2.0 Mono and Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo sound options. The 4K edition has fewer special features than the Vinegar Syndrome disc and nothing new to compensate for the missing ones, making it difficult to recommend an upgrade if you already own the Blu-ray, but it’s a worthwhile alternative for slasher diehards who missed out on the previous (now out-of-print) edition.
In a candid interview, Schoelen diplomatically admits that she did not enjoy the production and also touches on how the industry has evolved for women since she left the business. Despite a brief engagement to him following the production, Pitt is only mentioned in passing. Leitch is interviewed as well, revealing that a crossbow prop in the film was previously used in Deliverance and sharing an anecdote about the police being called after Pitt flashed a car.
Reinforced by poor VHS quality, a vintage “Find the Killer and Win” home video promo is a fun relic. “Kill Comparisons” offers a side-by-side look at the (marginal) differences between the unrated and R-rated cuts of four death scenes. The complete R-rated edit is also included in standard definition, although it’s hard to imagine anyone opting for that version. The trailer for Cutting Class and other MVD titles round out the extras.
Cutting Class did little to combat the late-’80s slasher fatigue, but its quirky take to the subgenre is easier to appreciate 35 years removed. In addition to a plethora of comforting kitsch — the formulaic plot, the stock characters, the gratuitous male gaze, the pre-fame A-lister, the freeze-frame ending — its attempts to interweave tongue-in-cheek humor and psychological mystery are admirable even if their application is clumsy.